State of Contentment

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While 35 percent of Iowa 4th graders scored at the proficient level or above on the 1994 NAEP reading exam, 65 percent did not.

Also, as a rural state, Iowa does not have to contend with many of the challenges associated with large and ethnically diverse urban centers. Outside of Des Moines, the state's capital and biggest city, there is little poverty and racial unease. Iowa consistently comes in second or third on "Kids Count," an annual report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that ranks states based on indicators of children's well-being. Iowa's children are significantly safer, healthier, and less susceptible to abuse than children in most other states.

Finally, Iowa has an abundance of small schools in small districts, which ensures that schooling takes place on a human scale. Children are less likely to fall through the cracks. Even Iowa teachers who complain that their own small-town educations were too conventional, rigid, or narrow say they benefited by having close relationships with committed teachers that were not confined to the school day. They would see their teachers in church, at sporting events, and on Main Street.

"I always had one or two teachers who knew me well," says Nicole Scott, a young physics teacher at Iowa City High School who attended a rural school. "There was also the fact that a techno-geek like me could be in drama, music, sports--something that would never have happened to me at a big-city high school."

But in some ways, these blessings are more confounding than they are enlightening. True, Iowa is at the top in terms of student achievement on national tests, but that's not saying much. A few statistics illustrate:

While 35 percent of Iowa 4th graders scored at the proficient level or above on the 1994 NAEP reading exam, 65 percent did not. (More distressing was the performance of minorities. More than 80 percent of Iowa's black and Hispanic children read below the proficient level.) When it comes to math, the numbers are even worse. Only 31 percent of Iowa 8th graders scored at the proficient level or above on the 1992 math exam; a staggering 69 percent were deemed less than proficient.

The numbers clearly say much more about the inadequacy of education in the other 49 states than they do about the success of Iowa's schools. Only one other state--Minnesota--did as well on NAEP. Yet given its many advantages, Iowa should be doing much better.

A few Iowans are beginning to get the message. Even in some of the more traditional schools, there is grumbling that things don't work as well as they once did. Educators are beginning to question whether they are effectively preparing students for the demands of a rapidly changing world. "There's a new recalcitrance among kids," says one middle school principal. "You have more students who just resist going along with what other kids want to do." Another middle school principal adds: "Just teaching the basics isn't cutting it anymore. Kids aren't going to be able to go back to the farm and raise crops the way they used to. That work is vanishing. So we've got to prepare kids for different kinds of work, and that means getting kids to solve problems, to interpret data."

In some schools, the grumbling threatens to become a kind of generalized discontent--especially in the high schools. Teachers and principals alike talk about how bored and disaffected many students have become, working 20 to 40 hours a week stocking shelves in some store and then falling asleep in class. Many teachers, they say, are reluctant to demand much from students.

"Do you know The Shopping Mall High School?" asks principal Warren Weber of Jefferson High School in Council Bluffs, referring to the highly regarded 1985 book about institutionalized low expectations. "Well, that book describes most high schools. The teachers say, 'Here's what we expect.' And the kids answer, 'Here's what we'll do.' I've told our teachers that we negotiate far more than we need to, that we let students get away with minimal effort in order to keep the peace."

"We're preparing kids for life in Millville, Iowa, when they need to become citizens of the world."

Joan Roberts,
North High School

While the majority of Iowa schools stubbornly adhere to the status quo, a few are trying to work their way through loss and frustration to transformative change. Two are in central Des Moines, a city not all that different in some respects from Chicago or St. Louis. The white middle class began leaving the city's neighborhoods decades ago for the quiet streets and cul de sacs of the western suburbs. In the central city, leafy oaks and maples loom over boarded-up houses.

One of the schools, North High School, is a vast, monolithic structure surrounded by acres of asphalt. Inside the factorylike structure, Principal Joan Roberts is talking on the phone with a parent, trying to negotiate a truce to an unfolding dispute between a teacher and student. "You've got to take care of these conflicts right away," she explains after hanging up. "You can't allow them even a day to fester.''

Roberts is locally famous, partly because of personal history--she and five siblings did some of their growing up in an orphanage--and partly because of her vivacious personality and acute intelligence. Roberts recently received the Iowa Principal of the Year award, but she certainly didn't win it by currying favor. As the head of a school with the state's poorest students, she's a fierce critic of an educational system that she sometimes depicts as beyond repair.

"If we see ourselves as the keepers of the system," she recently wrote her staff in a memo that is both a pep talk and harangue, "we may find ourselves protecting and maintaining structures grievously misaligned with the youth we serve." She goes on to note that in one semester, two-thirds of North High's students were referred to her office for behavior and attendance problems and that only 12 percent of North graduates earn college degrees.

"It's terrible, absolutely terrible, the way some teachers can just drone on," Roberts says. "Some actually still think that assigning Edgar Allan Poe is enough. Get the students to read 'The Tell-Tale Heart' and they'll be prepared. I tell you, in some ways, we're stuck in the '50s. And it's not just the urban schools that need changing. I would ask rural schools, 'What are you going to do with no farm jobs? Why is your population shrinking?' We're preparing kids for life in Millville, Iowa, when they need to become citizens of the world. We've got to look beyond Iowa. We've got to get real."

For Roberts, "getting real" means focusing on economic empowerment. She wants North to prepare students for jobs--good jobs--and that means reworking the school's curriculum. "Poverty is our biggest trap," she says. "And so 75 percent of our students work at least 20 hours a week at stores and restaurants. Some of them are virtually running the place. But it's a trap. They feel rich because they can buy a used car and some clothes. ... The business leaders in this city are concerned. They have an investment here and want things to get better. They want kids to come out of school with skills that can be applied to meaningful work."

From a filing cabinet, Roberts pulls a copy of the 1992 SCANS report, a U.S. Department of Labor document that gets its name from the panel that prepared it, the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills.

The report urges, or rather insists, that students acquire skills and competencies supporting "workplace know-how." The competencies are what some educators like to call "the new basic skills." They include not only the three R's, but also "higher-order thinking skills" and "the diligent application of personal qualities." There is a heavy emphasis on the importance of teamwork to solve complex problems.

As Roberts sees it, the new basic skills require a new kind of teaching--a teaching that is not all that easy to put into practice. Encouraging students to be punctual, polite, and hard-working is one thing; fostering an ability to "work with diversity," "exercise leadership," and "understand social, organizational, and technological systems" is quite another. And teachers accustomed to teaching traditional mathematics are going to have to stretch some in order to promote competencies such as "organizes and processes symbols, pictures, graphs, and other information."

The majority of the school's teachers are veterans who have altered their teaching practices, some radically.

But Roberts is convinced that the SCANS report over time can become a guiding vision for a massive training--and retraining--of teachers. Such an effort is already under way at North High. Roberts eventually wants the school to abandon the credit-based system that rewards mere seat time in favor of a competency-based system in which students demonstrate what they can actually do through portfolios and the like.

North has taken steps, albeit tentative ones, toward reform. Although there is still a fair amount of the drone-on teaching Roberts loathes, it's clear that some teachers are striving to have their students do more cooperative, project-based work. In a biology classroom, students study evolution by comparing and contrasting fossil evidence gathered from archaeological sites in the Midwest. "They need to see what a theory is," the teacher explains. "They need to know that a theory is not something out there, some kind of truth discovered in a flash, but that it's an explanation for what we over time are able to find out."

Similar changes are in the works at nearby Cattell Elementary School, a feeder for North. "I have teachers who believe in early-childhood development," says Principal Jack Cavanagh. "They don't believe that children are all at the same place at one time and that they should proceed from one grade to the next in lockstep." In keeping with this philosophy, Cattell Elementary has five multiage K-2 classrooms; next year, in an effort to keep students with the same teacher, four teachers will move--or "loop"--with their students from one grade to the next.

The majority of the school's teachers are veterans who have altered their teaching practices, some radically. For this, Cavanagh takes little credit. "I had to tell them it was OK to be innovative," he says. "They pretty much took it from there."

Like Roberts, Cavanagh is a devotee of the school-to-work movement. And like her, he talks about the need for schools to address themselves to the issues raised in the SCANS report. "Business is telling us that kids can't problem-solve, think mathematically, or teach one another," Cavanagh says. "And it isn't just our kids"--urban kids--"they're talking about; farmer kids need these skills, too. People are leaving the small communities in big numbers, and they'd better be prepared for the global economy. Besides, who wants to sit in a classroom working at, say, cursive for hours at a time? No kid can be happy with that."

In its quest to restructure, Cattell has borrowed from business. Student representatives gather each month in a "success council," which Cavanagh says is modeled on the so-called quality circles convened by companies seeking employee input. The students talk about the good things that have happened in the school and how other, less desirable situations can be improved. The school also has a close relationship with its business partner, the Hy-Vee grocery store chain. Students shadow managers at the stores, and everyone at the school can recite the four Hy-Vee tools of success: "dependability, compatibility, social skills, attendance."

The students work mostly in small groups in many of the Cattell classrooms. In one class, they move about the room, charting their heights and weights and conferring about essays and posters. The material on most of the classroom walls is interactive. In one room, a chart titled "What We Want To Know About Plants" hangs over several bedding flats. Children have listed questions--"How much room and sunlight do they need?" or "What's the best kind of soil?"--that they will try to answer.

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